The Timberwolves season is upon us. It’s been a long journey since the Game Five playoff loss to Houston that ended the season, and a lot has happened since then. Two big changes that happened over the summer were the additions of Josh Okogie and Keita Bates-Diop. In the first-round of the 2018 NBA Draft, the Timberwolves selected Josh Okogie, a wing out of Georgia Tech. Later in the evening, the Timberwolves used their second-round selection on the 2017/18 Big Ten Player of the Year, Keita Bates-Diop. With the inability to add many players in free agency over the summer, Okogie and Bates-Diop will be expected to learn on the fly and contribute to the big league club right off the bat.
If preseason action was a sign of things to come, one thing is clear: both rookies will see the floor. Both rookies were in the regular preseason rotation. Okogie even saw a couple starts because of rest and Jimmy Butler being away from the team. For Bates-Diop, he was a regular with the second unit, something that is expected to continue in the regular season. So, what can Wolves fans expect from Okogie and Bates-Diop in their first season in the NBA? I chatted with Georgia Tech Assistant Coach Eric Reveno and Ohio State Head Coach Chris Holtmann over the summer to get a better understanding of the Timberwolves rookies.
The NBA is a big adjustment from college basketball. The game is played faster, the three-point line is farther away, and players are much more mature. That is why we don’t see rookies win MVP. Rookies can have fantastic first seasons in the NBA, just look at Donovan Mitchell last season, but a big job for rookies in their first season is to learn. Soak up as much information as possible to get a better understanding of professional basketball. Speaking to both coaches, it seems like neither player will have any problem with learning.
When asking about Bates-Diop’s willingness to learn, Holtmann says: “I don’t think he’s thinking about anything else other than that right now: learn from the veterans, compete, and help the organization. I think that’s his only focus. I don’t think he wants to get ahead of himself and worry about anything beyond that.”
As for Okogie, Reveno thinks his head is in a similar spot: “He’s a very good learner. He can be coached hard. He never rolls his eyes and never pushes back.” Reveno continues on by saying: “If you get a veteran that’s willing to take him under their wing and guide him, he will just soak it up.”
For rookies coming into the league, this is a great sign. Guys that are willing to learn and take constructive criticism can help the player in the future. If Okogie and Bates-Diop soak up the insightfulness of several of the Wolves’ veterans, it can make their transition to the NBA that much easier.
Going into the 2018 NBA Draft and coming out of the 2018 NBA Draft, the main topic of discussion with the Timberwolves rookies was their defensive versatility. Okogie and Bates-Diop have the ability to guard multiple positions, something that is very important in today’s NBA.
When talking about Keita’s versatility, Holtmann mentions, “His length and his IQ. I think both really helped him. It’s well-documented. He’s got a 7’3” wingspan, but he’s also really smart. He’s not one of those guys that fouls at inappropriate times.” That length and IQ was put on display throughout last season at Ohio State, helping Keita average 1.6 blocks and 0.9 steals per game.
As for Okogie, it’s no different. The Timberwolves drafted Okogie because of his defensive ability. Eric Reveno summarizes Okogie’s defensive ability perfectly: “His length, his athleticism, and his desire and effort. He’s improved a lot in terms of his technique, and I think he will continue to do that. He’s willing to challenge himself. You tell him to guard a five man, a four man, a point guard, whatever, and he’ll do it.” That mindset on the defensive end of the court has been evident throughout the Timberwolves preseason games. Okogie never backs away from a defensive challenge, no matter how big, or small that challenge may be.
It’s clear from watching the Timberwolves rookies that the two players will improve Minnesota’s defense. Their switchability makes both guys extremely valuable right out of the gate. For a team that ranked 25th in defensive rating last season, rookies that can guard multiple positions is a huge bonus for the franchise.
While the Timberwolves rookies defensive abilities are well-known, their offensive abilities are more unknown, especially Okogie. Okogie is known for his defense, not his offense, that has been evident throughout the preseason. His shot misses badly at times, and he has been missing little bunnies around the rim. However, Eric Reveno sees potential in Okogie’s offensive abilities: “He’s a work in progress. His shot has improved monthly. When our season ended in March, and I saw him shoot in April, it was a better shot with more range. There’s nothing wrong with his skillset, his skillset is very solid and good, it’s just a work in progress. He’s just a young player that way. It’s his age, and it’s the number of reps.” Multiple times while talking to Reveno, he mentioned Okogie’s work ethic. Reveno says: “He’s an old soul. He’s got a maturity about him, and he knows what he wants. He works for what he wants.” Reveno continues on saying: “He has a nice steady pace to him. Every practice he was there early, and every practice he stayed late. We all have good weeks, bad weeks, but he was just really steady.”
As for Keita Bates-Diop, his offensive game is more polished. Bates-Diop brings more to the table right away on the offensive side of the ball. Shooting 35.9% from three last season at Ohio State, I asked Holtmann if he thought his three-point shooting could translate to the deeper NBA line: “Yeah, I do. I think he’s going to have to get used to the line. You saw him in Summer League make shots. Stretched the defense a little bit. So I think that will come. He’ll get a lot of repetitions working on that. But, I think that will come. He’s got really good touch, and I think his touch will only continue to improve.”
While the offensive game may take more time to develop for the Timberwolves rookies, the potential is there on both sides. As both coaches said, it will just take time, as both men are still very young.
The Timberwolves rookies are coming into the season, ready to learn, but they are also going to be expected to perform. With both players expected to play a role for the team from the get go, it will be important for the rookies to never get too high or too low. For Bates-Diop, playing in the Big Ten Conference in college for multiple seasons will help. When asking about how the level of competition in the Big Ten can help Keita this season, Coach Holtmann says: “I think it’s definitely going to help. I think he’s a guy that’s only going to continue to get better. I think he has terrific upside. I also think that he’s a guy that’s playing against really good people, and he’s played very well against really good teams and really good people, so I think he’s a guy that can be counted on and come in and contribute.”
The same can be said for Josh Okogie. Okogie’s defensive ability will give him a chance to make a big impact early in his career for Minnesota. Reveno states: “He’s a really unselfish team guy. He wants to impact the team positively.” And if Okogie and Bates-Diop are asked to sit back and learn, Reveno thinks Okogie will handle it like a professional: “He’s one of the best I’ve seen being engaged in the team and mentally dialed in when not in the action.”
With the Wolves having a lot of big money players on their roster, rookies like Okogie and Bates-Diop that have the ability to contribute don’t come around daily. For the Timberwolves rookies, they seem ready to learn, and if their name is called, they will be ready to perform.